Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Encounters with the Atom

By Andrew Sundstrom

For Aaron White (1971-2010)

You should’ve seen the look on Aaron’s face when I told him everything in the universe was made of atoms. He was staring really close at the silvery stream of water jetting out of the drinking fountain, the water almost touching his nose.

“You mean, even this water?” he asked in disbelief.

My arms were pinwheels. “Everything!”

That morning, after recess, I’d plunked myself down on the floor of the library, hunting for a new book. This dim little room was my sanctuary in first grade. Cross-legged, walled off from the dank Oregon morning and my tiresome teachers, I scanned the bottom shelf. Then my eyes landed on the faded spine of The Story of the Atom.

The cover showed an illustration of carbon. Red and gold colored balls clustered in the nucleus, swarmed by energetic blue balls that swept out an interlacement of orbits. “You never stop moving,” I thought as I gazed at the stupefying ensemble of particles. Up to then, the smallest things I’d seen were baby aphids crawling on the leaves of my mom’s basil plant. The new book in my lap displayed a tantalizing table of contents: What Things Are Made Of, The Moving Molecules, Smaller Than Molecules, Smaller Than Atoms, …! What could possibly be smaller than atoms? Down the rabbit hole I dove.

Alone and alight, I learned the atomic theory of matter. The bewildering variety of forms—from mountains to chocolate, poetry to perfume, and each living thing—they’re all just made out of rearrangements of about a hundred types of these absurdly small Legos. For the first time in my life I was in on some cosmic joke: the veil on this universal order had been lifted.

Later, when I attended Cornell University, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman was my hero. I could always count on Feynman’s explanations to reach me through the fog. A colleague once asked Feynman to explain an esoteric phenomenon in quantum physics. Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.” Taking this principle to heart, I shunned my physics textbooks and skipped class. I decided to spend my spring afternoons up at the Cornell Plantations, propped up against the trunk of a massive American beech, and work through the Feynman Lectures on Physics. One day, I came across a passage that stopped me cold.

“If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

In the thick of the Cold War, when everyone else seemed intent on intensifying the destructive power of the atom, Feynman sought to open a new frontier of scientific wonder, ushering in an era of nanotechnology. He gave a lecture in 1959 called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He spoke of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale, compressing and carrying information into the smallest known spaces, of tweezing atoms and laying them down into intricate binary architecture. He envisioned employing “a hundred tiny hands” to build and operate a whole new universe of nanomachines that could assemble computers at a scale so small they approach the limits of physical law. He sought to build better microscopes to understand biology at the molecular level. In the elongating shadows of the beech tree’s branches, his sage and prescient vision took my breath away.

In 1988, the year before I got to Cornell, Richard Feynman died of cancer. Pondering the tumor filling up his stomach, he went straight for the molecular causes, and proposed that there ought to be a way to deliver some kind of small molecule to the cancer cells to get them to burn themselves out as one might try to do with the motor that powers a runaway automobile. He intuited the best way to attack cancer was not with the sledgehammer of poison or irradiation, but with molecules that could disrupt the internal workings of cancer cells. But within a few months, the conflagration of molecular machines that was his cancer would close over him like a bush fire.

That year a chemist at IBM Zurich named James Gimzewski invented a new kind of microscopy based on the nanotechnological principles into which Feynman breathed life thirty years prior. He called it an atomic force microscope. It works by moving a tiny cantilever with a very sharp tip over the surface of things being measured, and tapping on the surface with that tip about sixty thousand times per second. As the tip moves up and down upon the surface, a beam of laser light bouncing off the tip of the cantilever moves in turn, and a sensor registers the extent of that movement. The microscope measures the height and softness of atomic-scale objects not by seeing them with light passing through them or measuring deflected electrons charging through them, but by feeling them.

I had just taken the AP exams in physics and chemistry, and in one particular trip to my high school library, I discovered a satisfying connection. The atomic theory of matter began with the concept of indivisibility formulated by the Greek philosopher Democritus (the word “atom” comes from the Greek “atomos” which means “indivisible”) and reached full expression in 1803 by John Dalton. In a resounding historical echo, a string of scientists—Hooke, Leeuwenhoek, Schleiden, Schwann, and Virchow—from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, gave slow birth to the revolutionary cell theory of life. All living things are made of cells and their products, and new cells are created by old cells dividing into two. An atomic theory of life!

Only later would I understand why it took so long for humankind to apprehend this second atomic theory. In his 2003 book, The Organic Codes, embryologist Marcello Barbieri captured how the microscope became the intellectual catalyst for the cell theory. He describes how the ancients had an overwhelming obstacle: experience made it obvious a mother is always bigger than the embryo born of her, and so life must originate from above, not below, from an inscrutably complex superior, not an insignificant inferior. “In such a situation the microscope was absolutely indispensable to force us to see the cells, to impose their existence on us, because without this violence our minds would never have been able to believe them.” In this way, he sees the cell theory as the greatest revolution in human thought. Here cells join with atoms in the profound significance of the indivisible nature of things.

Today my screen lights up with atomic force micrographs. I scrub and scrutinize the images, then model and estimate the physical features of RNA molecules that spell oncogenic messages of doom inside cells. Will this new microscope force me to see something in the nature of cancer I would otherwise miss? I hover at the edge of insight and the edge of history. On another day, I tap against the much larger membranes of cells, picking through a population to delineate the boundary of a tumor. Cancer cells, it turns out, are softer than the stromal ones in the margins. I am literally feeling cancer on the lowest order. With palpable progress, I move forward against cancer, and backward in time to that Oregon morning with Aaron in the first grade—the moment we were first captivated by the world of the very small.

(written 27 Apr 2011 — revised 14 Jan 2020)

Andrew Sundstrom earned his doctorate in computational biology from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU. He currently works as Senior R&D Engineer at Nanotronics in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and lives with his wife, two children, and two cats in Brooklyn Heights.